Is a person saved by faith alone, or by a combination of faith plus works? Paul’s letter to the Galatians proclaims that salvation is through faith alone. It also emphasizes freedom in the Spirit, knowing that our relationship with God is not based on our performance but in the finished work of Jesus Christ. So we are truly free, not to serve our sinful nature, but to love and serve our Lord and others. There is debate as to when the Book of Galatians was written but many agree that Paul wrote between 48-50 AD. Here are some things to watch out for. Judaizers were Jewish Christians who believed that a number of ceremonial practices of the Old Testament were still binding in the New Testament church. This thorny issue, in various forms, dogged Paul throughout his ministry. And some themes. First, Paul’s apostleship. He vigorously defended his apostolic calling and his gospel. Paul was not trying to protect his wounded reputation as an apostle but he was defending the truth of the gospel as it had been revealed to him by Christ. Next there is salvation by faith alone. Paul’s definition of the truth of the gospel affirms God’s universal grace for all people. In Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female because all are one in Christ. Justification by faith, a doctrine central to this letter, creates a harmonious community. Third there is legalism versus freedom. Believers do not need to be under the law to lead ethical lives. The Spirit, whom they receive when they believe, empowers them to live the way God wants. The law can neither produce the fruit of the Spirit or restrain people from sinning. It’s function is to identify sin and pronounce God’s judgement. It is through the believers Union with Christ that they are truly set free. This liberation is not freedom to sin, but freedom to serve one another in love. Last, a Spirit empowered life. Believers are not to rely on their own power to live the Christian life. The Spirit led Christian does not live for self but allows the fruit of the Spirit to shine through their everyday activities.
Paul opened his letter defending his apostleship. This was not uncommon unfortunately. He traced his commission to God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead. Because he received authority from Jesus, he had the same authority as all the other apostles. The brothers and sisters are most likely from the church in Antioch of Syria. This was the hub of Paul’s ministry and the earliest center of Gentile Christianity. The churches of Galatia were probably those formed during his first missionary journey, so we are talking about Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. Verses 4-5 are a summary of the Good Newsand the basis for the rebuke that follows. It might be a creed or a confession of faith that Paul used to remind the Galatians of the message they had earlier embraced. Usually Paul followed his greetings with giving gratitude for his readers…but not here. He found nothing to praise in the Galatian church. They were turning away from the Good News Paul had preached and were instead looking towards the law. Gods had in fact called the Galatians but false teachers were calling them to be circumcised in order to become part of God’s family. This distortion was not the Good News at all; not even close. The Judaizers were twisting the truth concerning Jesus Christ, but Paul reminded them that no one could change the Good News. It is clear Paul is not trying to win the approval of the people. But being Christ’s servant requires fidelity to Christ, regardless of how people respond. These Judaizers were questioning everything Paul had said and done and Paul defended it all. Paul’s message was that people are made right with God by grace through faith, not by obeying the law. The law cannot save.
What Paul preached no human taught him. Jewish scholars primarily depended on teachers. The Judaizers accused him of receiving his commission and message from other apostles and then Paul changed it. Paul insisted that he had received the message directly from Jesus Christ. His unique experience gave him distinctive authority and insight. But he learned about Jesus’ life from others who had known Him. To give this argument weight Paul described what his life was like before he encountered Christ. He was a highly successful Jew, and he persecuted the church named for Christ. But Paul was calledspecifically to proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. Again Paul shared that he was taught directly by Jesus Christ and he did not consult with any other human being. He was independent of the other apostles but was still in harmony with them. This is the only place that Paul speaks of his trip to Arabia and it appears his understanding of the Good News was formed at that time. Paul already knew the Old Testament scriptures. He just needed to know Christ. Peter and James had 15 days to speak with Paul about his message, which was in harmony with theirs. Fifteen days was much too short a time for Paul to become dependent on Peter as his mentor, but plenty of time for the content of each man’s preaching to be thoroughly discussed. He was not working under the supervision of the church in Jerusalem but they rejoiced with him because of what the Lord was doing among the Gentiles.
During Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem, some 14 years later, the other apostles affirmed his message. The fact that Barnabas was familiar to the Galatians indicates they were evangelized during the first missionary visit. If 2:1-10 correlates with the visit in Acts 11:30 then God might have revealed His will through Agabus’s prophecy and the churches decision to send aid. If Paul had needed the endorsement of the leaders in Jerusalem he would have met with them publicly. Instead they met privatelymeaning no one thought Paul needed any public endorsement. Paul didn’t share his message in Jerusalem for endorsement but to make sure they were all in agreement. No one wanted the church to split into Jewish and Gentile factions. And the Jerusalem leaders didn’t see a need for the Gentile Titus to be circumcised. The false Christians had managed to sneak their way into the proceedings in Jerusalem, trying even there to subvert Paul’s message. By labeling them as false Paul denied that they were Christians at all. These false Jewish Christians had been brought in, indicating that there was an even larger group who were trying to subvert the gospel message of the Good News of Jesus Christ. No one gave into their demands.The Jerusalem apostles had reputations as great leaders, no doubt in part because of their connection to the physical Jesus. But what really mattered was their commission and in that Paul was no different. Paul reminded the Galatians that God didn’t have favorites because favoritism is inconsistent with God’s character. It must have been quite the day as Paul and Barnabas stood with Peter and James, shaking hands making them coworkers in the kingdom. Wow!
The mention of helping the poor was already on Paul’s list. He was eager to have the Gentile churches receive offerings to take to Jerusalem to help with the brothers and sisters there. The poverty was crushing in Jerusalem. Eventually there were issues between Paul and Peter and Paul had no trouble calling Peter out. Peter’s actions were inconsistent with what he knew to be true; that God accepts Gentiles by faith, not by keeping the law. Paul opposed Peter to his face because he wanted to keep the Good News from being corrupted. Peter ate with Gentiles and that was consistent with what the Lord had shown him. But the friends of James wanted to reassert Jewish scruples and prevent the free communion between the Jews and Gentiles from continuing. Then he refused to eat with the Gentiles and when it came to the Lord’s Supper, Peter separated Jews and Gentilesand implied that the Jewish observances made them more acceptable to God. Evidently the friends of James intimidated Peter, which seems hard to imagine…Peter being intimidated by anyone. Peter’s actions were inexcusable and his hypocrisy drew other Jewish believers into error regarding the Good News. Paul reminded them that the law plays no role in defining a Christians position before God. Favoring one part of the body over another was a big deal and could not be tolerated or practiced. Some believed the Gentiles were sinners because they didn’t have the law and they couldn’t obey God’s commands. But Paul had told the church in Rome that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The false teachers were claiming that. Paul’s law free Good News would lead to lawlessness, the people would flaunt their sinfulness, and eventually Christ would be seen as leading people into sin. Remember that the law condemns us and the Good News through the power of the Holy Spirit saves us. Christianity does not teach that the body is evil or that we have to escape from this world to have fellowship with God. Instead, by trusting in the Son of God, we fulfill God’s purposes for our lives. Christ’s self giving love makes new life possible.
From chapter 3:1-5:12 Paul defends the truth of his message; that a right relationship with God comes by faith in Christ alone; and he proves the fallacy of the message that Gentiles must keep the law in order to be acceptable to God. Paul compares the Galatians spiritual experience with Abraham’s, showing that they were made right with God in the same way…through faith and not the law. Their foolishness was both intellectual and spiritual as they turned away from Christ and put faith in the law. The Galatians were deceived by the false teachers evil spell which took the form of enticing arguments. Paul’s proclamation of the Good News clearly portrayed Christ’s death and explained its significance. The Galatians, like all Christians received the Spirit by faith in Christ, not by obeying the law of Moses. Paul questioned the Galatians good sense, asking why If they had received the gift of the Spirit, were they now trying to earn what had already been given to them. Over and over Paul hammers away at making sure the Galatians understood it was faith and not the law that brought salvation. Abraham’s experience showed that faith has always been the basis for a relationship with God and for receiving what God had promised. Gentile Christians, including the Galatians are among the real children of Abraham but only through faith. The scriptures looked forward…by faith Abraham saw the coming of the Messiah.
Paul also reminded them that if they chose to follow the law, they would need to keep every bit of it, something none of us can do. Life under the law comes by obeying, not by believing and a right standing with God is impossible on that basis. In contrast with those who depend on the law, those who look to God through faith in Christ, freely receive God’s life and blessings. Christ paid a heavy price to ransom us from the law. And it is Christ, not the law, who has fulfilled the promise and covenant given to Abraham. The seed of Abraham that Paul is speaking of here refers to a single descendant, in this case Christ. And, the inheritance cannot come through keeping the law because that would nullify God’s promise to Abraham, which was by faith, given before the law. The law, given through angels and a mediator…Moses… required an agreement between God and the people. The law was conditional with blessings and curses attached to keeping it or not. In contrast God gave His promise directly to Abraham. He did not use a mediator. The false teachers in Galatia were trying to convince the Galatians that the law could do something it was never intended to do; give new life and make people right with God.
There was a big difference between the condition of people under God’s law before Christ and their condition now with Christ. The law was like a guardian. In Greek culture a child’s guardian was like a tutor, often a faithful slave responsible for training and protecting the heir until he came of age. But now we have the way of faith. Those who are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus have come of age as heirs of His promises and have received the down payment of that inheritance. The Galatians were trying to do this through circumcision. But as God’s children by faith they already had the best access to God. We are united with Christ in baptism. Baptism represents death of an old life and birth into a new one and in the new life the law’s curse has no power over us. Everyone comes to Christ and receives God’s promises in exactly the same way. We are all equal and we are all one in the body of Christ.
A child inheriting an estate might receive a large fortune but before coming of age the child must obey guardians and trustees until the time set by the father. And before Christ came, God’s people were under the guardianship of the law. God set the right time in history for Christ to come. Christ was fully human, born of a woman, and subject to the law. Christ fulfilled the law so now God’s children have freedom. Christ ransomed us so that He could adopt us. Those who have the Spirit of the Son are now able to address God as Father, just as Christ did. Paul reminded the Galatians of their former paganism, telling them practicing circumcision would be like returning to paganism. But now they know the Lord and why would they want to go backwards? They had also begun celebrating Jewish festivals thinking it would make them more acceptable to the Lord. If the Galatians turned completely, it would negate all the work Paul and Barnabas had accomplished there and the Good News would have done them no good. Paul invited them to live as he did, even when he had first come to them and he was sick. They did not turn him away. Now he feared they would. They had been joyful when Paul had preached to them the first time but now they were slowly fading away and Paul feared he would have to begin all over. The false teachers are eager to win the Galatians over, trying to shut them off from Paul. But they were Paul’s spiritual children and the process of bringing them to faith had been like giving birth, a hard labor but a joyful conclusion. If they continued to grow in Christ, they too would give birth to Christ’s image. But if they followed the false teachers, they would produce a stillbirth. Since Paul was not with the Galatians, but writing a letter, he didn’t know if the tone he was setting was helpful or effective. So he returned to scripture.
Now he spoke of Sarah and Hagar. The son of the slave was born to Hagar. This was Ishmael. And the son of the free womanwas also the son of the promise, born of Sarah. This was Isaac. Paul connected Abraham’s human attempt to fulfill God’s promise with that of the Galatians attempting to find salvation in human attempts to keep true law. Both Hagar and Mount Sinai were symbols of Jerusalem which stood for Judaism in Paul’s day. Judaism continued to trust the law and in physical descent from Abraham for their status before God, they rejected Christ and continued to live in slavery to the law. Sarah represents freedom in the heavenly Jerusalem, the ideal city of God. Abraham’s true children by faith now live in the reality of God’s reign in Christ. For Paul, Isaac represents those who are born through God’s promise by the power of the Holy Spirit. Ishmael represents those who believe that human effort by keeping the law will make them acceptable to God. Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the child of the promise. And in Galatia, those who wanted the Christians to keep the law were persecuting those who trusted in God’s promise, the message of God’s grace through faith in Christ alone.
At the beginning of chapter five Paul summarizes his message to the Galatians. Christ has truly set us free and we are free to walk by faith in Christ alone. He cautioned the Galatians to not take the yoke. In Judaism it was a duty and an honor to take up the yoke of the law. But God’s children in Christ are not called to bear this heavy burden. Instead they enjoy Christ’s yoke of freedom. The law leads to alienation from God while real righteousness comes to those who live in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The alternative to living by faith in the law is to live by complete reliance on the Spirit to make us pleasing to God. We receive God’s righteousness at our salvation, in an ongoing way through the Spirit’s sanctification, and fully at the resurrection when Christ returns. Faith in Jesus Christ provides access to all of God’s favor and grace, so no further benefit is available through human effort. Faith is expressed by exercising love towards others. The life of faith is like running a race and the law became a hindrance to the Galatians in this race rather than a help. God wasn’t calling the Galatians to slavery in the law but to freedom. Either Paul didn’t know who the false teachers were or by not naming them he gave them no importance. Having shown that justification comes by faith alone Paul now addresses the question of if we don’t keep the law what will guide our conduct? His answer is that righteousness comes from the Spirit. Freedom is not a license to sin because love guides Christians. The whole law can be easily summed up in these words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The opposite of love is biting and devouring one another. And people who do not love are characterized by strife and bitterness. They will end up destroying each other but love gives life to others. A law free faith will not lead to moral ruin because having the Holy Spirit to guide people’s lives changes their hearts to follow the will of God and not sin. When we are finally resurrected we will finally be freed from sin.
Paul likes lists and we have two of them here. The first list is works of the flesh. It is very clear that a basic understanding of right and wrong is universal. Many of the things on this list were connected to pagan worship and practices and they had no place in the life of a Christian, regardless if you started as a Gentile or a Jew. But when we let the Spirit guide us it produces a life pleasing to God. There are nine gifts of the Spirit. Paul is stating the obvious here but also making the point that those who are virtuous by the Spirit do not need the law to govern them. It also appears that the Galatian church was having an issue with factions instead of following the Spirit’s leading.
In chapter six Paul outlined how to treat other other Christians with love when they sin. Some of the Galatians were proud of their obedience to the law, or their spiritual freedom and willpower. But those who are godly are not proud of their accomplishments. They humbly help others. All of us are susceptible to the temptation. Carrying one another’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ to love one another. Those with a proud attitude wrongly assume they are too important to help the weak. And if believers carry their own load they will have no occasion to treat anyone else with contempt. Paul reminds the Galatians that they cannot mock the justice of God. He will not be fooled by spiritual pretenses and everyone will harvest the consequences of their actions. Living to please the Spirit is possible only if we are in the Spirits power. Otherwise we are satisfying our own sinful nature. Paul admonishes the believers to not get tired of doing what is good because at just the right time..in other words, God’s time…we will, reap the harvest. This assurance is a source of strength for Christians to continue doing good work. And if we don’t give up God’s promises to believers require their steadfast perseverance in faith. So, our freedom in the Spirit compels us to do good to others in love.
Paul took the pen from his secretary and added a postscript in his own handwriting to show that the letter was authentic and to make a final appeal. The false teachers motives were self serving and they were more concerned with their own reputations than serving or honoring God. Paul’s motivation on the other hand was to bring God glory.Paul would boast about the cross, some that was a scandal to the Greeks and Romans who did not believe. The Galatians had missed the point of the Good News, that a new creation had come in Christ by the Spirit, not by human effort. The Galatians were new people of God through Jesus Christ. Nobody had the right to trouble Paul or criticize his message because of his proven status as Christ’s servant. And Paul had the scars to prove it! Paul had many scars of suffering. He prayed at he end as at the beginning. More than the law, the Galatians needed the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to be with their spirit.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W